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Writing with Ruffnecks: Charles Bernstein's ENGL 111 class at ICA

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Writing with Ruffnecks: Charles Bernstein's ENGL 111 class at ICA

By Lauren Shapiro.

“You have one of the biggest American cities in your backyard!” said every Penn prospective student tour guide ever. “There is more to do in Philadelphia than you can imagine, and you have easy access to all of it.”

For ten students, this statement never rang as true as it did last month, when they found themselves staring at a wall of baloney slices from a foot away, at the then-closed Institute for Contemporary Art, listening as a classmate’s poetry reverberated across the first floor gallery space.

The baloney slices are part of a piece by William Pope.L in Ruffneck Constructivists, a new ICA exhibition that the curator, famous artist Kara Walker, explains as exploring “architecture, urbanisms, and the resistant bodies who reshape them.” The name rewrites “Russian Constructivism,” an avant-garde art and architecture movement of the early twentieth century that emphasized a utilitarian nature for art, and repurposed and de-purposed objects to comment on their traditional usage.

As for the poem--this particular one was written by Connie Yu, one of the ten students in Professor Charles Bernstein’s Experimental Writing Seminar (ENGL 111), in response to Pope.L’s piece “Claim.”  Each student prepared a poem that communicates with one piece in the exhibition, and on Monday, February 17th, they had Ruffnecks to themselves to present their work and receive feedback from their peers at the site of inspiration.

 

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    • Connie performs a poem written in response to “Claim” by William Pope.L


Poetic interaction with visual material is only one aspect of experimental writing that the students of ENGL 111 explore. This “‘poetry immersion’ workshop” allows students to communicate with other media, and with “innovative approaches to composition and form,” including dismantling and restructuring relationships between language and meaning. What this does, as one student, Liza, suggests, is “get you thinking outside the normal parameters we find ourselves setting for literary creation.” The students of ENGL 111 resist traditional usages of words, sounds, syntax, and assumptions of what they mean, and experiment with techniques that subvert or comment on these conventions (take a look, for example, at 111’s “homophonic translation” exercise).

Connie’s poem in response to Pope.L’s work embodies this idea with lines like “creamsicle dreams curdle crepuscule-- white paint DRIP/WEEP deconstruct it, lower, case it A aa aaa a aa avenerable-like something.” We see here unconventional juxtapositions, syntax, and sound to show that our assumptions about poetic creation of meaning (such as the assumption that lower and case should not separated by a comma because, in this context, they should create an idea together) are not givens. Simply put, there are more ways to look at and use the English language than those taught in grade school.

In academic circles, a literary description of, or response to, a work of art is called “ekphrastic” writing, a Greek term almost directly translated as “speaking out.” The ekphrases of ENGL 111 lived up to this, as the students all read their poems aloud, thus adding performance and sound as routes through which they could experiment with form and meaning. Furthermore, the students used the first floor of ICA as an acoustic laboratory of sorts, playing with the ways in which their voices could interact with the gallery walls and sounds from Ruffnecks’ short films. Liza paced her poem to perfectly flow with her chosen art piece, Kahlil Joseph’s short film Until the Quiet Comes, creating the sensation that her poem was not only responding to the film, but collaborating with it to create a new artwork altogether.

 

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    • Liza after her collaboration with Kahlil Joseph’s Until the Quiet Comes.


Because in their performances, the students dissected and rebuilt language to present novel ideas about poetry, art, and meaning, and they harnessed the acoustic environment and architecture of Ruffnecks to give their poetry even more character, the students of ENGL 111 not only responded to Constructivist work, they did Constructivist work themselves.

Penn’s Creative Writing Program connects world-class experimental poets like Bernstein to aspiring writers, enabling students to learn about avant-garde poetics while exploring the ways they can build upon these concepts to create new types of art. Bernstein’s course takes this even further, as it shows the conceptual connections between the experimental art of many mediums. In an article, it is hard to imagine the implications of this idea, but after a short walk to ICA or a visit to ENGL 111, we see it clearly, boldly, and we are immersed.
 

 
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Lauren Shapiro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Political Science and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Aside from writing for Penn Art & Culture, Lauren co-directs Penn’s poetry workshop and performance collective, The Body Electric. She also serves on the executive board of SREHUP (Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia), an inter-college organization that supports and volunteers for homeless shelters citywide. In her free time, Lauren enjoys writing, playing piano, traveling, and eating sugary foods.